Monday, January 24, 2011

Blocks, Blocks, Blocks, Blocks

Hey, remember Tetris?

It’s, um, the Russian one with the blocks. And it’s relevant today, says me.
tetromino (tet-RAH-mi-noh) — noun: a plane or solid figure constructed by joining together four identical polygons edge-toedge
Though I can remember Nintendo Power back in the day referring to the Tetris blocks as tetrads, the term used by non-video game dorks (though still by dorks, because come on) is apparently tetrominos, and not because Tetris blocks fall from the sky and tetromino happens to sound like something parachuters would yell. The term comes from the combination of the root tetra, meaning “four,” and domino. But in inventing this word, someone made an interesting assumption, whether consciously or not.

Like tetrominos, dominoes are shapes constructed by joining identical polygons — just two of them instead of four.

And it would seem that someone decided to treat -omino as if it meant something on its own, and the initial “d” like it was a contraction of di-, a word that can mean “two.” That’s not the case; domino comes from the Latin word dominus, “lord” or “master,” either because whoever wins gets to claim that title or because the black titles used in the game resembled the domino, a black garment word by certain officials in the eighteenth century. However, domino got reinterpreted and -omino took on meaning on its own. (In that way, it’s a lot like helicopter, which breaks into word parts a lot differently than most people would guess.) Now we have triominos (which have three squares) to dodecominos (which have twelve squares) onto infinitominos (which I just made up, but which theoretically exist). We even have n-ominos to represent every size of polyomino in between. And yes, there’s even a monomino, which is fun to say but is basically just a square and is therefore the most boring of the lot.

So there you go: The next time you’re trying to clear a four-liner and you get a worthless two-by-two when you needed a one-by-four, curse your lousy luck with tetrominos, not tetrads. Or, you know, you could do something more creative with them.

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